Volkswagen Magazine

Life

The man in the van.

Daniel Norris is one of the highest-ranking pro baseball prospects in America. And one of the most unconventional. His favourite place to relax is where he lives, in a Volkswagen T2 Westfalia.

Text Eli Saslow
Photos Nathaniel Wood (8)
Unpretentious: Daniel Norris likes to cook on a portable stove.

Daniel Norris on Instagram (@danielnorris18)

 

She's got her Daddy's nose. #vanlife

Ein von Daniel Norris (@danielnorris18) gepostetes Foto am

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The future of the Detroit Tigers wakes up in a Volkswagen campervan behind the dumpsters at a Walmart and wonders if he has anything to eat. He rummages through a half-empty cooler until he finds a dozen eggs. “I’m not sure about these,” he says, removing three from the carton, studying them, smelling them and finally deciding it’s safe to eat them. While the eggs cook on a portable stove, he begins the morning ritual of cleaning his van, pulling the contents of his life into the parking lot. Out comes a surfboard. Out comes his only pair of jeans and his handwritten journals. A curious shopper stops to watch. “Hiya,” Daniel Norris says, waving as the shopper walks away into the store. Norris turns back to his eggs. “I’ve gotten used to people staring,” he says.

»Where else can you be as free as in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of the ocean, or on the peak of a mountain.«

Daniel Norris, pro baseball player

This is where Norris has chosen to live while developing into one of the best young pitchers in the Major League: in a van parked under the blue fluorescent lights of a Walmart in the Florida suburbs. There, every morning, is one of baseball’s top-ranked prospects, doing pull-ups and resistance exercises on abandoned grocery carts. There he is each evening, making French press coffee and organic stir-fry on his portable stove. There he is at night, wearing a spelunking headlamp to go with his unkempt beard, writing in his “thought diary” or rereading Jack Kerouac. 

He has been here at Walmart for long enough that some store employees have given him a nickname – “Van Man” – and begun to question where he’s from and what he might be doing. A few have felt so bad for him that they’ve approached the van with prayers and crumpled dollar bills, assuming he must be homeless. They wonder, Is he a runaway teen? A destitute surfer? A new-age traveller lost on some spiritual quest?

The truth is even stranger: The Van Man has a 92 miles-per-hour fastball, a $2 million signing bonus, a deal with Nike and a growing fan club, yet he has decided the best way to prepare for the grind of a hard season is in a 1978 Westfalia campervan he purchased for $10,000. The van is his escape from the pressure of the major leagues, his way of dropping off the grid before a season in which his every movement will be measured, catalogued and analysed.

If a baseball life requires notoriety, the van offers seclusion. If pitching demands repetition and exactitude, the van promises freedom.

He bought the van in 2011, a few weeks after signing his first contract out of high school with the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Volkswagen has been his friend and his spiritual centre ever since. He named it Shaggy after the character in the Scooby Doo cartoons. He sings it songs and writes it poems and gives it Valentine’s Day cards.

A left hander, Norris is one of the Detroit Tigers’ greatest prospects.

He takes it for hiking expeditions in the mountains of Tennessee and surfing trips along the Carolina coast. He drives it each year to spring training in Florida, and this year he stretched the spring trip out over a few weeks. He drove without a schedule from his home in Tennessee, avoiding the interstate and exploring the dirt roads of Appalachia, sleeping in the crawl space behind the driver’s seat with his head tucked against the back door. When he finally arrived in Florida, he parked illegally on the beach and camped inside the VW until local police evicted him.

“Nonconformist” reads one sign posted inside his home on four wheels.

On the morning in 2011 when his $2 million signing bonus finally cleared, it unsettled him to see so many zeros on his bank account balance – “Who am I to deserve this?” he wondered. “What have I really done?”

“I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” he says, because not having money maintains his lifestyle and limits the temptation to conform. He never fills Shaggy beyond a quarter-tank.*

Instead of eating out with teammates, he writes each night in a “thought journal” that rests on the dashboard. “Where else can you be as free as by yourself in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of the ocean, or on the peak of a mountain. Adventure is freedom."

At 7:30 a.m., Norris reports to the ballpark for his second bullpen session of the year. Sometimes, on the mound, his arm feels almost foreign to him – like a gift, a fluke, all those fast-twitch muscles that for some reason just know how to fire. “I am always trying to figure out why I can throw like this, because it doesn’t make any sense,” Norris says.

* Volkswagen warns against following this example. Filling your tank only a quarter of the way increases the risk of running out of fuel.

»Who am I to deserve this? What have I really done? I am always trying to figure out why I can throw like this.«

Daniel Norris, pro baseball player
A parking lot as his front yard: Some people think he’s a destitute surfer.

Later, he drives away from the field, beyond the sprawling suburbs, onto a two-lane causeway, a strip of road in the middle of the water, where he can pull off and park Shaggy directly in the sand, a 10-metre stretch of beach separated from the road by a line of palm trees, a place so public that nobody else seems to notice it. Traffic cruises by on the causeway, and he has the beach to himself.

He watches the sun dip toward the horizon as his dinner cooks on the portable stove. He calls his father and lets him listen to Shaggy’s engine over the phone. “Sounds pretty good, right?” he says. He receives a message from his mother. “We’re proud of you for being you,” she tells him. He sets down his phone and puts on sunglasses. Gulls dive into the water. Waves crash into the beach. The sunset paints his van in oranges and blues.
“Perfect,” he says.